Incoming undergraduate students generally fall into one of two groups: those who are confident about what they want to major in and those undecided amid a plethora of options.
At the beginning of his freshman year, UNLV sophomore and Honors College student Michael Schwob found himself in the latter crowd. He’d initially aimed for medical school — an idea he scrapped after a job-shadowing experience at an orthopedic surgeon’s office in high school helped him realize he didn’t deal well with blood.
Back to square one, Schwob began paying closer attention to his father, Mike, who had just begun a Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering at UNLV. Schwob was intrigued by the structure and rigor of his father’s work, having had minimal exposure to research in high school.
“When my dad started showing me some of the research he was doing, I wasn’t gripped by the topic as much as seeing the process of doing the research, which was really cool,” Schwob said. “Just being exposed to the process of figuring something out that no one has known before really excited me.”
Inspired by research but unsure of which subject to study, Schwob — who was still in high school at the time — began contacting professors at UNLV to learn more about their work.
“The list of professors I contacted was a decent length, but everybody responded to my inquiries, even though I didn’t have a background in their research,” Schwob said. “It was just incredible how accessible the professors were here.”
In his first week as a freshman, Schwob met with four professors and shadowed two of them. The proactive approach later landed him opportunities to sample research projects ranging from astrophysics to hospitality. With that firsthand exposure and some keen faculty advice, Schwob narrowed his focus and declared a double major in mathematics and economics, with a computer science minor.
“One clear advantage I have right now is that I know what I don’t want to do,” Schwob said. “A benefit of being exposed to a variety of research is that you’ll find there are topics that you thought you wouldn’t like that are actually great as well as ones that you initially thought would be amazing that for whatever reason you end up not gravitating toward after all.”
A case in point is Schwob’s current research project with Justin Zhan, computer science professor and director of UNLV’s Big Data Hub. At first Schwob wasn’t sure how interesting he would find the world of biomathematics and computer science. He would be researching cells’ signaling pathways—the communication mechanisms that allow cells in our bodies to send and receive messages with each other—with the goal of formulating more accurate models to help researchers better understand our bodies’ biological processes. Schwob’s excitement grew, however, as the project progressed and he began to understand the impacts on human health.
“Cancer is a result of miscommunication between cells,” Schwob said. “If we’re able to accurately model the communication between cells and show where the faults are, it could help us figure out how to delay cancer or at least minimize the damage it could have on the body, even if we don’t learn how to eliminate it completely.”
Schwob is now writing part of a paper he and Zhan plan to present at conferences once it’s been accepted for publication. Already, Schwob has been exposed to every step of the research process and is currently deciding between an economics and biostatistics Ph.D. after he graduates.
The benefits have extended beyond the academic for Schwob. Networking with faculty and working alongside other students on research teams has generated new relationships and new learning experiences, and Schwob has enjoyed the social aspect of research as much as the technical.
“My current research partner is a computer science student,” Schwob said. “We had an instant bond, and I can’t remember laughing more with somebody about such nerdy stuff!”
Schwob is now an ambassador for UNLV’s Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR), which entails acting as a bridge between fellow students and faculty. While he had no qualms about approaching faculty members, he understands that not all students feel comfortable approaching strangers.
“I don’t think enough students realize how accessible UNLV faculty and researchers are,” Schwob said. “Getting involved in research can open up a new world, and I want other students to know that’s possible. All they have to do is contact OUR, and we’ll help.”
Thanks to research, Schwob has come a long way since the indecision of freshman year and feels more confident in his academic plans moving forward.
“I can’t imagine a life without research at this point,” Schwob said. “Just knowing that someone, even a freshman, can start producing knowledge—that’s pretty powerful. It gives you a rush providing answers about something no one else knows yet.”